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Photography and the Black Arts - part two
Today we largely view the making of photographic prints and the printing of photo reproductions as two very different entities but in their infancy these distinctions were fare less clear. They were both tools of the graphic arts and early efforts to mass produce photographic images would lead to discoveries in multiple mediums that would eventually impact all methods of reproduction. Methods of transferring images between mediums became an all consuming quest. Nothing was to play a more important role in this than the development of gelatin tissue for it greatly expanded the printing trades ability to reproduce photography. Likewise more simple mechanical transfer methods would also make the work of artists and retouchers more efficient.
Carbon Prints and Gelatin Tissue
Joseph Wilson Swan took this technique a step further by adjusting the transfer process so that the gelatin emulsion photosensitized with potassium dichromate was only washed after the first transfer and from the opposite side thus preserving more of the original detail. An alum bath would then be used to harden the remaining gelatin. This new type of emulsion was known as gelatin tissue, which Swan patented in 1864. The photographic prints created through these improvements display a wide and rich tonal range. Substituting various pigments for the original carbon could also change the color of the final print. Because no silver is used these photographs are known for their permanence and were made in large numbers until 1910.
Gelatin tissue had wider implications for the printing trades. After being exposed to light through a transparency the tissue could be adhered to a printing substrate using alcohol. When its paper backing is removed only a thin gelatin membrane (tissue) is left behind. The unexposed gelatin can now be washed out with water leaving behind a hard gelatin relief that acts as a resist to the following etch in proportion to its exposure to light. Since exposures could only be made with sunlight during the early years of printing, this new tissue that could be exposed independently of the substrate became indispensable for the transferring images onto difficult surfaces such as heavy litho-stones and large rotary cylinders. In many ways it was a revolutionary innovation that greatly expanded the use of both lithography and gravure. A version of this tissue that could be dried and stored was made commercially available two years after its initial invention. The Autochrome Printing & Publishing Company purchased the rights to this product in 1886. Gelatin tissue is so closely based on Potevin’s earlier carbon tissue it is often incorrectly referred to by the same name.
Woodburytype: The woodburytype process was so complicated it was very rarely used in the production of postcards. When found they usually take the form of fine portraiture. Any color pigment could be added to the gelatin solution but most prints have a brownish cast to resemble albumen photographs.
The delicate plate used to make woodburytypes could only yield about 100 prints. It was a very complex and expensive reproductive method and woodburytypes were usually only used in high quality books as tip-ins though they do appear on cabinet cards. Its use ended around 1900 as other methods more adaptable to commercial printing were developed. While this process was generally too expensive to be used in the production of postcards it was later combined with lithographic techniques that were more commercially successful, such as photochromie. Photo collage was a popular 19th century pastime where images taken from many photo sources such as early tintypes and carte de visite albumen prints were cut up and pasted into scrapbooks together with drawings and other printed material. This tradition carried over to early postcards, especially of the handmade variety where pieces of woodburytypes might sometimes be found.
While small areas of a stone can be polished with hand tools there was really no good way to erase mistakes made in a lithographic drawing without potentially damaging the stone’s surface. If serious mistakes were made on a stone it would have to be reground while transfer paper could just easily be discarded. Many also used metal litho-plates as they thought the transfer process worked better on them; but since they had no depth corrections were nearly impossible. There was a great variety of transfer papers available depending on the task at hand. Most were usually coated with some sort of water-soluble gelatin or gum and then drawn upon with the same greasy crayons, tusche or autographic ink normally used in lithography. These thin papers could also be placed over a rough surface when drawn upon to pick up patterns or texture as if making a rubbing. Once moistened and placed face down on a stone the blackened grease would stick and the gelatin and paper would be washed away. Uncoated papers were also available but there was even a greater chance of image loss when using them, especially in the finer details.
Printers often had difficulty meeting the growing demand for lithographic prints in the early 19th century. This was most often true when an image captured an important newsworthy or sensational event that the public had a great appetite for. It was found that production could be greatly increased by using the transfer process to create additional stones that could print the same image. Once the drawing on the initial keystone was made and processed it would be rolled with a greasier transfer ink made specifically for transfer and printed. This wet print would then be laid upon another prepared stone and the image transferred to it with pressure. Once processed there would be two stones capable of printing images identical in every way except for the random stone grain. This process could be repeated over and over until a printer had all the stones needed for the job. Because the image drawn on stone will slowly deteriorate as it is printed, transfers were often made before the press run begins. In this way the transfer process could be used as insurance against the first stone becoming unprintable before the required press run was complete.
Facsimile Woodcut: This postcard depicts a woodcut but there is some question to if it was actually printed as such or in line block. Within the whites there are more specs of black than would usually show up in a woodcut but that are typical of accidental spatter on a line block plate. While it is possible that this image was drawn in a woodblock style there are many nuances that are very typical of knife cutting such as the white line around the figures. This may indicate the existence of an original woodcut that was printed on transfer paper, and then transferred to a metal plate but there is no way to know for sure.
Ink-Photo: By the time postcards came into production few printers were still making ink-photos. Their legacy however continued in the photomechanical prints made through mezzograph screens. It is impossible to tell by which process this rare English made card from 1931 was made due to the similarity in outcomes. In the enlargement below it takes on the appearance of a tinted collotype but in the greater enlargement further below the coarser reticulated pattern becomes evident; about ten times larger than the average collotype.
Decal: This old decal was printed on gummed paper with a three color line block.
Retouchers spent so much time polishing out unwanted details and adding in desired elements that they began using decals to speed up their work. These tiny images of people, cars, and boats of all sorts could be purchased or manufactured in house. Many printing firms had these details drawn onto stones by there own artists that were then printed onto gummed transfer paper and stored as stock images. When a new composition required a car or person absent in the original image the retoucher could just go to a cabinet, remove the appropriate sheet, and cut out what he needed. If these decals were printed with a greasy transfer ink they could be directly applied to a polished stone, but if they were made with regular printing ink they were pasted to a transparency before it was exposed to a photosensitive substrate.
Decal Retouching: Very often the use of a decal can be discovered, as in this postcard because of a problem with spacial scale. Here the car has been placed too low on the picture plane in relation to its size within an otherwise photographically correct image. Such mis-positioned decals often end up looking like toys. Another clue to finding decals is when the exact same detail appears in the composition of different postcards.
Paper Grains (Paper Tints)
Paper Tints: Both these printed textures were made with the use of paper grains. The detail above shows a line pattern transfered onto a line block printing plate, and on the bottom is a detail of a tinted pattern printed in lithography.
Paper Tinted Lithograph: The image on this lithographic postcard is created through the use of drawn dots, blots, and paper tints. The tints used here are all on the same rotation creating optical colors and softening contrast. It is often difficult to discern how patterned dots were created but those with a coarse and somewhat irregular shape as seen below are usually the result of drawing on top of a paper tint.
Paper Tinted Lithograph: This postcard from 1915 has the drawn feel of a crayon lithograph but on closer examination its texture is too coarse to come from a polished stone. In the detail below we can see that the black key printed over color dots was drawn with the aid of a paper grain. It has the telltale markings of dots run together in the shape of X’s and Z’s from the heavy application of pressure by the artists hand.
Paper Tinted Lithograph: This unusual postcard was drawn entirely with linear paper grains. This technique closely resembles the effect often found in chromoxylographs when the blocks were cut as lines. In the detail below we can see that each color was rotated; but even though there are no dots, an interference pattern is created when digitally scanned evidenced in the sky above.
Because of the variety of paper tints used it is not always easy to discover their use on a printed image. Some tinted papers were made with the peaks of all dots already blackened. The artist could then blacken them further with crayon or fill in the spaces between them entirely with ink. This heavy paper also had the ability to be scraped so that existing black dots could be removed to print solid whites. Scrapping paper however is not like working with metal or stone and this soft surface produced poor tonal transitions. Images originally created with paper tints were sometimes reprinted in a new medium through the use of transfer paper or by photomechanical means. Poor translations between the dot patterns of one medium to another could sometimes distort the characteristics of the original drawing.
Shading Mediums (Manufactured Tints)
Benday: The detail above shows a typical benday pattern printed in lithography used to fill in a sky. The red benday pattern on the line block below was used to add a warm color cast to the overall image.
An important use of benday patterns was to increase the appearance of optical colors when only a limited pallet was used for printing. Dots of one color could be laid over a solid field of another, or dots printed in two colors could intermingle. Though similar in methodology to four color process printing, there were no photographic separations of color used on these postcards; all placement was done by the discretion of the retoucher. The amount of color variations that could be created with this method was only limited by the dot pattern itself. Too many overlapping dots however could create new and unsightly patterns (moiré) running through the image. Two layers of dots could sometimes succeeded due to the pale colors used or when they were printed nearly over one another.
Benday: All the color on this postcard is created through red benday patterns of varying weight. They are overprinted with a halftone key in black.
Even after line blocks began to be made with photographic halftones the use of shading mediums did not end. Benday was often an essential component of retouching work used to add tone or color back into a drawing. The tonal values of color are largely determined by the ink chosen, not the image on printing substrate, so areas that will print lightly still need to have a strong presence on a plate. Even a mark that will print white is first drawn in as a black. It is these areas such as details in the sky that are most often absent from a black & white photograph and placed into the composition with shading mediums. Parts that needed to be given stronger color emphasis can also be added in this manner. The dots would print the same color as that of the rest of the plate they were added to. At first glance benday dots can easily be mistaken for a halftone screen pattern, especially when both are used on the same plate. When observed more closely the density of benday dots tend not to change except for slight variances due to the pressure of application. They may grow blotchy as they get bigger but they will never form an optical bump that creates the checkered pattern so often found in halftones.
Benday and Lithography: It is important not to underestimate the ability of a retoucher to create a photo like picture entirely through the manipulation of shading mediums. The image on this postcard consists entirely of lithographic spatter overprinted with multiple colors of benday dots. Though the dots are all printed with identical rotation, moiré patterns are averted due to their very small size and high density tempered by the irregular dots beneath them. While a strong screen pattern is create, it is only visible under magnification as seen in the detail below.
Benday and Lithography: This seemingly simple postcard was printed in eight colors, with two sets of reds, blues, browns, and a yellow. While the color was applied in broad flat areas, the deep brown used on the key plate is entirely made up of benday dots. They first take on the appearance of a halftone but their shapes as seen in the detail below are just too irregular to be formed by a line screen.
Benday and Collotype: Lightly printed lithographic dots were often used as tints underneath collotype as their irregular hand drawn pattern did not distract from its continuous tone. In the rare case of the German card above, all the color is provided by benday dots alone, which are distributed throughout the entire image. Though applied with varying pressure to change tonalities, its regular patter is clearly visible in the detail below.
Benday and Line Block: Hand drawn line work is used on this early line block postcard to create the figures and outlines while shading mediums were used extensively to create tone. The dot and line patterns in the detail below seem too irregular to have been created by a mechanical tint but their frequency falls at totally measured intervals suggesting that they were not drawn in by hand. The most obvious conclusion is that they are a result of manufactured tints pressed onto the printing plate.
Mechanical Tint and Halftone: The montaged images on this multi-view postcard were printed in halftone but the colored spaces in between were filled in with mechanical dots. A slight overlap was calculated in to the composition in order to avoid white lines if they were not printed in perfect register.
LINE BLOCK (Linecut)
The line block photoengraving technique, a hybrid of intaglio and relief printing, was refined by Firmin Gillot’s son Charles in the 1870’s. The process based on the earlier paniconograph was first introduced as the Gillotype (Gillotage). Unlike the earlier version that involved a mechanical transfer, this technique was a purely photomechanical process. A negative of a line drawing is contact printed onto a metal plate that has been photosensitized with an albumin dichromate solution. Light hardens this emulsion into an acid resist while non-exposed areas are removed when rinsed in warm water. When etched in a bath of acid the metal surrounding the emulsion protected lines is eaten away forming a low relief. Because acid will undercut the resist, the plate needs to be repeatedly recoated with a special ink that will gently run down the cut sides of the line without stopping further biting until a good depth is formed. The plate is then rolled with ink, which will only adhere to its surface but not in the incised lines as with traditional intaglio, and then it is printed in the same manner as a woodblock. As the line block method can only print a single tone all values are created optically and a wide variety of textures were often added to enhance it. Because these plates are inked in the same fashion as relief prints they were usually adhered to woodblocks to raise their height so they could be used in conjunction with letterpress. It was through their use in letterpress that they became known as line blocks or line cuts. Their adaptability to this commonly used medium propelled line blocks into the dominant method of illustrating books and newspapers printed in letterpress. Its use did not stop there as a great many trade cards and postcards would also use line blocks in their production. A similar relief process to line block known as the Phototype was developed by Fruwirth and Hawkins during the 1860’s but its surface could not hold up to the demands of commercial printing.
Line Block: This postcard shows a very typical use of a line block illustration combined with letterpress. Both the picture and the type were printed in a single press run.
Line Block: Nearly all postcards have lines and text on their backs printed in letterpress but it is not so unusual to find elaborate graphics added to the backs of early cards through line block printing as well.
Line Block: While the drawing on this postcard somewhat resembles a wood engraving the detail below reveals that the edges of all lines are typical of an rough intaglio etch and show no evidence typical of wood cutting tools. The lines are however much more varied and free flowing as they have no technical restrictions regarding size or width.
Line Block: While this early trade card was printed in a linear form of line block, many lines are not of solid black but have small white dots within them. This may have been the result of applying an aquatint dusting to the plate under the resist before the drawing was made. The uneven density of marks as seen in the darker area of the detail below reveals it may have been added for a textural design as much as for tone.
The line block process was capable of utilizing drawings in a number of ways. Sometimes the transferred images were so carefully ruled out that they almost give the impression of a steel engraving. In the late 19th century it was very common for cheaply made line blocks to imitate more expensive wood engravings as well as lithographs, which not only duplicated the types of popular illustration the public was most familiar with, but it added the prestige of a fine art look. When used to print small scale items such as postcards its rough irregular marks were especially good at creating the illusion of a crayon drawing. Most often however artists used the freedom this technique provided to draw without stylistic constrictions. Sometimes this allowed for greater individual style to be captured on a plate but too often the skill of draftsmanship just declined and carefully drawn lines turned into sloppy blotches. In either case all drawings wound up being printed in a solid flat black. When halftones were introduced they were quickly adapted to line block printing so that optical tones could be more easily produced.
Line Block: While the ease of transferring an image to a line block led to a general lack of draughtsmanship, some line blocks were created with great skill and care. The image on the postcard above is created through the careful use of line work, and the postcard below with a combination of line and fill in work.
The rivalry between letterpress and color lithography led to the line block being adapted to multiple plate color printing in the 1860’s. Chromotypographs were different from chromolithographs in ways apart from the obvious technology. There was no attempt to employ the same wide range of colors as they shied away from art reproduction and realistic rendering. The limited pallet of line blocks became part of their economy, which also made them easy to use. Simple illustration, comics, advertising in more stylized graphic design became the mainstay of this technique. Chromotypographs employed a wide variety of textures but rarely plain dots. Some of these textures were created by drawing or spatter, while other marks were etched into the broad lines of the plate to print in white. Aquatint was often used in the production line block plates to create random texture. This allowed for more interesting patterns of optical blending when multiple color plates were combined. As the general trend at the turn of the 20th century turned toward printing with less color, the more elaborate forms of chromotypography came to an end. Line blocks would still be used to create color postcards in color but in more expedient ways such as relying more heavily on manufactured tints.
Chromotypograph: Only three line block plates (red, green, black) were used to print this postcard above. While the colors were integrated to create optical hues they still read for the most part as local tints.
Chromotypograph: When line block was employed to print color it was most often used in a decorative graphic fashion with no attempt to reproduce natural color as seen on this advertising card. In the detail below we can see how pen drawn line work is combined with benday.
Chromotypograph: Line blocks were often used on postcards depicting maps because of the exacting demands in rendering fine sharp detail. In the enlargement below we can see the crispness of the image, but despite that this is a form of letterpress the irregular edges of the type indicate that it has been drawn in rather than set. The curves and various angles needed in the layout could not be matched by the strict geometries required when setting type into a form.